Morsi in Tehran: strategic realignment or a safe pair of hands?

For now, Egypt’s financial stability depends on keeping the US and Saudi Arabia happy.

Egypt’s new President Mohammed Morsi was in China this week before putting in an appearance at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Iran – all before he has even stepped foot in the US. Several commentators have speculated that this could herald a strategic realignment away from Washington and towards Tehran. The Washington Post hailed the trip as “a major foreign policy shift for the Arab world’s most populous nation, after decades of subservience to Washington”. This seems very unlikely, if not disingenuous, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the importance of foreign visits and their chronology can easily be overstated. Every reactionary from Doha to Downing St goes to China to do business and – unlike the West – China does not demand political allegiance in return. This trip in itself signifies nothing about Egypt’s foreign policy.

Likewise with Tehran: the Turkish foreign minister and the Emir of Qatar are also attending the summit, yet no one is suggesting that an end to their “decades of subservience to Washington” is on the cards anytime soon. Neither should it be forgotten that, although Morsi has yet to visit the US, he hosted a visit from Hillary Clinton within a fortnight of coming to power, and his first foreign visit as President was to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – the West’s number one Arab friend.

Secondly, it is difficult to believe that Morsi’s election would have been received quite so enthusiastically in the Western media had he been seriously contemplating an end to the US alliance. Pundits from the Guardian to the Telegraph were falling over themselves to downplay Morsi’s "Islamism", hype up his “conciliatory” tone and moderation, and reassure the world that he was, in fact, a respectable statesman like any other.

Morsi received just under 25 per cent votes on a 43 per cent turnout in the first round of voting, and managed to just scrape a majority on a 50 per cent turnout in the second round. The “people have spoken” rhetoric in the Western media over this (hardly landslide) victory contrasted sharply with its scorn for the 63 per cent majority won by Iran’s Ahmadinejad (on an 85 per cent turnout) in 2009 – a victory which easily overshadow’s Morsi’s, even after possible anomalies are accounted for.

Third, Morsi’s government looks set to be deepening, not reducing, his country’s economic dependence on the West: a $4.5bn IMF loan is currently under negotiation. The IMF do not do free lunches - they demand their pound of flesh in the form of privatisation of industry, the abolition of tariffs, subsidies and other measures to make life easier for foreign capital (and harder for the poor).

Not that Morsi’s organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, have any particular objection to such policies – their economic strategy document al-Nahda (“the renaissance”) is a model of the type of extreme neo-liberalism the IMF so adores. They have already pledged to abolish the £10bn annual food and fuel subsidy that is currently a lifeline for the country’s poor, and are committed to the emasculation of the trade unions which were such a potent force in last year’s uprisings.

The parliamentary opposition that might be expected to fight such measures will be neutered if the Brotherhood implements their commitment to end the long-standing rule that 50 per cent of seats in the Egyptian parliament be reserved for workers and farmers. Interestingly, the IMF loan currently being negotiated was rejected by Egypt’s military leaders last summer as being politically unwise – in other words, likely to provoke massive popular outrage. In economic terms, the elites of Egypt and the West are definitely singing from the same songsheet.

Finally, Morsi seems to be playing the role of figurehead for the latest incarnation of the West’s regime change strategy for Syria. Long before his outburst against Assad in Tehran this week, Morsi had nailed his colours to NATO’s mast, claiming that the Syrian government must “disappear from the scene” because “there is no room for talk about reform”. Now he is proposing a new Contact Group for Syria involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. It can be assumed this plan has the backing of Washington and London – if indeed it was not initially drawn up by them – by the very fact they did not immediately dismiss the idea as they had in the past. Morsi’s spokesman Yasser Ali explained: "Part of the mission is in China, part of the mission is in Russia and part of the mission is in Iran”(presumably attempting to win Russian and Chinese acquiescence to a NATO-imposed "no-fly zone", as suggested this week by US general Martin Dempsey), before delivering an ultimatum to Tehran not to intervene.

What is more likely to be happening is that Morsi is consciously allowing the idea of a “turn from Washington” to take root in order to gain credibility, allowing his Syria plan to be presented as an “independent regional initiative” in an attempt to undermine Russian and Chinese claims of Western imperialism.

We have been here before. Turkish President Erdogan gained huge prestige across the Arab world three years ago for the supposed "anti-Zionism" he demonstrated walking out of Shimon Peres’ speech at the World Economic Forum, and his grandstanding over the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla the following year. But he then went on to use this prestige to garner support for the current proxy war against Syria, the only remaining Arab state to follow its verbal backing for the Palestinian struggle with actual military support. In doing so, he effectively placed himself at the vanguard of the Israeli-Western policy agenda for the region.

Morsi’s Egypt remains financially dependent on the US, and now Saudi Arabia. The US famously provides $1.3bn military aid annually, whilst Saudi Arabia has been the only country to provide loans to Egypt - $4bn worth – since last year’s uprising. Meanwhile, the country has been suffering under the double hammer blows of world recession and the loss of tourism. Egypt’s financial stability depends, in the short term at least, on keeping its two backers happy. In this light, Morsi’s comments this week that his commitment to Western-sponsored regime change in Syria was a “strategic necessity” is quite a candid admission.

 

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attend the opening session of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran (Photograph: Getty Images)

Dan Glazebrook is a History/ Politics teacher and journalist who has written for The Guardian, Counterpunch, Z magazine, the Morning Star and Al Ahram amongst others.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.